Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Tag: hope

Two Recent Sonnets

When I go on retreat, which I try to do quarterly, I like to review my journals. This is a common practice for journal keepers. It’s easy to forget where God has been, or to have missed how present God was in a previous moment when you were mired in the vagaries of that moment. In a recent review, I found my New Year’s resolutions from January 2020 . They included having people over to dinner twice a month. Ha! They also included that I would post a poem on this blog once a month. I did not do that. So here is a remedy. Two recent sonnets I wrote;

Seagulls are almost raptors

Could Be a Raptor
A Sonnet for Birders

O fix your eyes on a heavenly host–
Those wind-hovering ecstatics of sky,
Held up by figures of physics and ghosts,
By feathers canting “Wonder!” “How?” and “Why?”

May your own neck ever swivel for wings,
And long gaze ever rest right where you saw
Up there! and right there! something, O! — something
That’s swooping down, talons open towards awe.

May trust in each potential eagle spied;
In every would be hawk that is a crow;
In seagulls, yes, take them, wings open wide,
Half raptor beauties, all gripping air’s flow,

Make hearts rise with all the birds you have dreamed–
And soar on lift of desire’s thermal streams.
Walking on Collings Ave, January 12, 2021

You can listen to me read it here.


The bay at Sunset, Margate, NJ 2/4/2021

Earth’s Most Careful Feet
for the Browns

Declaring absolution for shells crushed
Beneath my feet, I walked the glittered sand
Too littered full with shining treasures flushed
From gentle rush and pull of ocean’s hands
For Earth’s most careful feet to miss them all.
It is decided—crushing shells can’t be
A sin, and if it be, then sinner I shall
Go on being—so going by a sea
Now emptied by the cold but golden faced
From sun’s thus angled gilding of the tide
In patterns left like slips of satin, lace
Retreating, leaving fringe on edges’ glides
I wonder again if footprints belong(?)
No, not unless God’s tide had pulled you strong.

Walking in Margate,  February 5, 2021

You can listen to me read it here.

Laughable Abundance: A Story for Your Buoyancy

Dear Friend,

Times are tough, right? Sorry, I don’t know how to say anything that doesn’t sound inadequate so I’ll leave that question there. I have a story that really helped me float through a day that started chin deep in the toughness of the times. Spoilers: nothing changes in the times, those of the world or the ongoing narrative of my life, but it seemed like God had a mind to inflate me that day. It all had to do with an abundance of milk that just kept making me laugh. Here’s the story:

The other morning while praying with Circle of Hope’s prayer team on a zoom call I was sitting in front of my house watching a young goose waddle along with its left winging hanging by its side. My heart went out to the gangly goose, black head feathers only just faintly beginning to plume, life expectancy flopping down with the injured wing. I was so moved by the sorry sight that I asked those gathered on the zoom call to pray for this goose. It seemed silly but since the Lord sees every sparrow I am sure this goose is in his care as well. I like to follow those little spurts of compassion no matter where they are splashing. But in my prayer, I was also seeing myself in the all-but-a-goner goose.

Adult Canada Goose with broken wing

I was feeling broken-winged, and I thought that Circle of Hope was looking a little broken-winged, too. I am charged, with the other pastors, to lead our church to discern together about our common direction next year, and that morning, it seemed to me that it wasn’t going that well.  I was fielding disagreement, dissatisfaction with the process, and my own mild despair that I wasn’t up for the task. It is really hard to make a group decision at any time, but especially during a pandemic when our only face time is on a screen. I was feeling separated. Our cultural conversation is co-opted by simplistic ideological purity tests which constantly tempt us. I was feeling divided. My heart was sore from some personal stuff that was weighing on me. I was feeling heavy.  So I prayed.

And this is how God responded:

A few weeks before, I had signed up to receive vegetables, milk, cheese and meat for 50 families through a connection with the Kingdom Builder’s Anabaptist Network and Mennonite Central Committee Philadelphia Program Coordaintor, ChiChi Oguekwe. ChiChi is my friend and I try to do whatever she says. I had a good idea for distributing the food through the South Jersey Mutual Aid Compassion Team that folks from my Circle fo Hope congregation had recently started in response to the pandemic, but I did not have a good idea about much else… apparently.

Problem #1 – I showed up to 50 boxes of vegetables and 50 boxes of milk, four gallons in each box (Thank God the cheese and meat was not delivered!). The stack of food was ridiculously too big to fit in my Toyota Prius. I told ChiChi with not a little embarrassment that I could not take all the food and to give some of my allotment to another church that had room to haul it. I bet my friend Juan a dollar that I could fit 75% of the boxes in my hatchback. I would have lost that bet I found out but not before ChiChi solved the problem and cancelled the bet. She produced a new friend named Alex who had come with a minivan that was going unused and he was willing to drive a load of boxes to Pennsauken. God bless Alex! God is good! I laughed out loud as I cruised over the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.

Problem #2 – I arrived to 3800 Marlton Pike still praising God that Alex was there to help. (Side note: On the way back I listened to the newly discovered podcast of a hero of mine, Miroslav Volf — the day was really turning around). When we arrived, a whole squad from the South Jersey Mutual Aid Compassion Team was at the building packing delivery boxes for that evening, people I had never met before included! I had no idea they would be there. They helped unload the boxes from our Prius and minivan and helped to fully assess the immensity of Problem #2. What were we going to do with all this milk? I really just hadn’t thought about all of the implications of accepting this donation. I was expecting 50 gallons total and we got 200 gallons! We have one fridge at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken which was at the moment full of apples (from a previous moment of laughable abundance which could probably be its own tale of buoyancy).

Lauren Smith, the leader of the team snapped into action. Calling another leader in the church who had his own mini-mutuality network in Gloucester City to which he could distribute some of the milk that would not fit in the fridge, even after we had emptied out the apples and very creatively stacked and shoved the fridge full of gallon jugs. Lauren, strapped her two young children into her Rav 4 and we loaded up her trunk with spoils of milk that would not (not on our watch) go spoiled, but would nourish a family or forty.  God bless Lauren and her team! God is good! I laughed out loud as I stacked full boxes of milk five high and shoved them against the fridge to make sure that the insulating seal wasn’t broken by the bulging milk within. Lauren stood by approvingly. Ha!

Problem #3 – We still had a lot of un-refrigerated milk. We earmarked as many 4 gallon boxes for folks in our mutual aid network who were slated to receive food deliveries that day. We figured the milk would be fine for a couple more hours, but that was only 18 families. It was 72 gallons of milk but that was not enough!

Here’s some more fun: It also happened to be election day, and don’t take our Anabaptist card, but we host the election at 3800 Marlton Pike. The firemen from whom we bought the building always used to do it and I thought it would be a good way to be known in our neighborhood. One of the election poll workers, Dolores, got looped into this problem (It was a super slow voting day since everyone got a mail-in ballot in NJ). She called up her church’s food pantry team leader who definitely wanted some milk. He came an hour or so later with a truck and took 40 gallons with him. God bless Congregación de Yahweh in East Camden. God is good! I laughed at the line-up of need and need, and the new friend, Pastor José Martinez of this Messianic Jewish congregation around the corner.

Problem #4 – We still had about 20 gallons of un-refrigerated milk and I had to leave. This whole debacle had been scheduled for a couple of hours of my day and it was already running at 100% more time than it got budgeted. I told Delores, and her sidekick, Deb, to offer a gallon of milk to everyone who came to vote for the rest of the day. “I’m counting on you for this, okay?” I said with another laugh as I slung my bag over my shoulder and retreated. When I came back five hours of later, all the un-refrigerated milk was gone! God bless Delores and Deb! God is good! I laughed as I gave an air high-five to Dolores from across the room.

And all of this buoyant laughter was essentially precipitated by my broken wings. Either by distraction, or incapacity, or lack of foresight, or any number of deficiencies to which I could assign my name, I had created a problem that ate up more of my day than I had planned. It was my fault. But God brought me through it with so much more joy than seemed possible as I pitied that broken bird in the morning and worried about how painfully apt my prayerful metaphor really was. I still have a lot to learn about team building, and delegation, and appropriate planning, and any number of gracefully describe “growth edges” to which I could assign my name. I still don’t know all the answers to my problems, and I am even more aware of how much I get it wrong sometimes. But God made me lighter that day. And God is enough. And God makes me laugh. And God is good! May you receive the flotation flowing your way today, or tomorrow, or whenever it comes (but it is coming!).

Hope Bigger Than Just Hype

jjandeI believe that a coffin sized rectangle of reclaimed lumber in the front yard of Circle of Hope’s repurposed firehouse in Pennsauken will change the world. We put some fresh soil in it and we’re going to grow some food then offer the produce free to passersby. This will destroy the forces of evil. Sounds grandiose, right? It is, and it’s overblown, but it’s our only hope.

It’s our only hope because in order to do anything at all (and the things we do are often small- like planting a raised bed in our yard) we need to have hope that it matters to something bigger. I think transcendence is a basic human need. We are built to desire a connection to something greater than ourselves. We all hope in some way that our tininess contributes to a bigger whole, like when Mother Theresa said “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”

Our 20 or so square feet of garden will change the world because it is a drop in an ocean of goodness that has its source in Jesus’ redemption project for the world. We are participating in a future that has already been promised by the most trustworthy of promisers, God himself. The world is going to change one way or another. My hope is in Jesus’ return and his establishing a new order that blows all our best guesses at heaven out of the water, but in the mean time the world will change because we are not alone in our tiny acts of hope. The inevitability of the peaceable kingdom that is promised to us in the Bible works its way under my fingernails in the dirt of our garden to be and deep into my heart in my practice of hope.

It’s so much easier not to try after all. There are a lot of reasons not to. The impossibility of the task- it seems like it’s the ocean against our little drop. We’re more worried than ever about being consumed because that is what we are most interested in doing collectively as a culture. So even when we are inclined to put our hope into action, we are often defeated by anti-hope forces like our own cynicism, the immensity of the domination system, and fear. Last night at my cell meeting we were kind of overwhelmed by the question “Do we have to change the world?” I think most of us hoped the answer was no. We don’t want that responsibility and we certainly don’t want to be judged for not caring.

These sort of discussions in abstract always seem to devolve into shame and apathy. We think we should be successful at anything we attempt, and if the prospect of success is slim to none we’d usually rather not try. But if we change our ethic from one of success to one of witness we’ll have a much better shot even if the numbers haven’t budged. Our metric for success can be faithfulness to the certain hope of the future of the Kingdom of God. Then it matters what we actually do and how we actually do it. It’s about what is real and not as much about an abstract evaluation of it’s effect.

So I planted a raised bed with my friends. It’s going to change the world- maybe just by maintaining our own capacity to hope, maybe just in sharing some locally grown veggies for no reason but love, maybe just by pointing to a future in God’s Kingdom in which everything has changed.

Going it together

I went to King of Prussia for lunch today.  My friend Phil works in a business park.  I had never been to a business park before.  It was very interesting.  It got me thinking about how incredibly astute we need to be at our isolation to remain separated they way we are.

Glaxosmithkline was across the street (it’s a bit shinier)

Out of the manicured wilderness spring dozens of big 1970s buildings.  Brick and bulbous yet nondescript on the outside, the inside of Phil’s office was bright with color and full to the gills with people.  I broke onto the cubicle floor with little resistance in search of a bathroom as I waited for Phil.  Cubicles are half walls now, so you could see everybody on the floor.  The bathroom was bustling with people amicably talking about sports and other acceptable topics of conversation.

When I got back to the reception area I sat across from the sandwich lady.  I noted the lack of eatery options in this sprawling facility.  “So do you take the food around to the people in your cart?” I asked her.  I had seen stuff like this on TV!

“No, Diane, the receptionist, sends an email, but there’s no Diane, so there’s no email.”  She answered.

The room full of hungry people did not know her bean salads had arrived because Diane wasn’t there to send an email to announce the bean salad’s presence.  It was interesting how together everyone was, and how very not.  An outpost of teeming humanity in the once teaming with game no-longer-woods outside of Philadelphia held together by email alone despite the borderline absurdity of this concentration of bodies in this should-be-secluded locale.

Phil and I crossed the parking lot to eat at a cafe in another building.  We were meeting up to talk about including people in Circle of Hope Broad and Washington.  Of course, Phil had a regular lunch crew that he had to let know he wouldn’t be there.  My observations about these people’s separation are mostly artificial, but the setting was too fascinating not to report and to correlative to our conversation.

Let’s not be this (I don’t think we are)

In thinking about the people that Phil knows and reflecting on our own experience as Christians, we lamented the isolation of faith into our very private lives.  Thoughts about the meaning of life are hard.  Thoughts about death and the afterlife cause a lot of anxiety.  Thoughts about confronting our limitations are painful.  If we are to follow some of the prevailing wisdom of our age, we should figure these things out by ourselves.  Regardless of what conclusions we are leaning toward, that’s hard!  But for many reasons it is in fashion to come up with everything out of our own head for it to be valid.  Why do we have to go it alone?

Phil and I were figuring out how to help our friends “go it together”–with us.  We wanted to be with them in their struggle and be sensitive to the pain they’ve experienced, but without cutting the part of us off that gives us meaning.  We don’t want to convince them that their isolation is wrong.  We want to convince them that we love them. Sometimes it seems like we have to censor our hope in Jesus to do that, and maybe we do at first, but sometimes our hesitation to be ourselves in Christ is more about how similar our pain is to those who have,  facing similar circumstances, decided to abandon the faith, nominal or otherwise, of their family of origin than it is about protecting those we are trying to love.  We need to revisit that pain with God and be healed.

All the commands that Jesus gave us are impossible to achieve without Him.  The Holy Spirit enables us to do what we are called to do by healing our past wounds, giving us courage, and even the words to say in those perceived as delicate moments of conversation.  It’s all about trust.  Our faith stays so small if we give it zero exercise.  Relying on God is really hard to do just in our heads.  We need to risk something to be saved again.  We need to die to something to experience the power of the resurrection now.  We need to “be with” as God is “with us.”  We need to “go it together” with those who are following Jesus and with those who are not.


Cultivating HOPE

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 002

The Hope sign hit the streets this Saturday.

I had this idea that I wanted to try because I thought it was fun and because I wanted to make new friends.  Plywood in my basement, a jigsaw from my local tool library and presto I had HOPE! (It was a pretty hopeful thing to do so I guess I had hope in my heart and a plywood manifestation of it on my lawn)

I took my sign to the Uhuru Flea Market in Clark Park with Shalom House.  The Shalomers asked people what we should do with $10,000,000 to help our community.  They were asking people to dream up some better ideas than the US Government’s $10,000,000 idea to build a drone command center in Horsham, PA. (This Fox report hails it as good news).

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 011

I asked people to participate in my communal art project.  Pick a color (or 6) and make your mark on HOPE.  We were cultivating hope right there in our communal garden of Clark Park.  My friend said he just liked how big the sign was.  It yelled “HOPE!”  And he wanted to hope.

I was pleased with how many people wanted to know what we as a Circle of Hope were all about and how many people were willing to get messy for a minute and make something beautiful together.  Jesus offers us that messy sort of hope.  He came into our midst and offered us himself to us in our messy humanity and now he sends us his Spirit to keep the hope within us alive and growing in the midst of our still very messy humanity.

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 006

Hope springs up from beyond our capacity.    It is best when it gets pollinated and hybridized through mutual sharing.  Following that metaphor, maybe my work as a pastor is to be the bee of hope–listening to many stories, making many friends, sharing in many lives as I buzz from flower to flower spreading hope.  In our modern era we’ve figured all this out.  We have super high speed high resolution digital cameras that can document the pollination that bees do but in Jesus’ day the growing of seeds and their plants’ fruit was more of a mystery.  In Mark 4 Jesus tells this parable:

HOPE at Clark Park with Shalom House 6.22.13 020

“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Bees aren’t really aware of how important they are to the life cycle of many plants.  I am a bit more aware, but I still can’t dissect hope and tell you how it grows.  It seems I can participate in it, but I do a lot of sleeping, and yet this newness seems to grow.  Many new things happened on Saturday.  I met new people.  I heard new ideas and I got a new sense of what God is doing through me now–and my hope got bigger.

Hoping the rain away

A couple of great ideas got postponed yesterday because of the threat of crazy rain and the reality of some rain.  It seems that new ideas for how we at Circle of Hope might meet people are bubbling up all over the place.  My friend Howard cooked up this great plan for public worship involving fiddles, flash mobs and fun.  That’s happening next Thursday, thank God.

My idea was a public art project.  I cut the word “hope” out of a piece of plywood.  I painted it white and bought a bunch of colorful paints.  The idea was to take it to the Dollar Stroll on  Baltimore Avenue last night and invite people to make their mark on HOPE.


I’ve learned that hope is not an inexhaustible resource.  It is not a quality that a person has.  It is not a matter of will or positive thinking.  It is gift that needs to be tended and maintained.  At Circle of Hope we have organized ourselves to receive that gift from God on the regular and tend it together in our various circles.

Our art piece is a symbolic working out of who we’re trying to be.  We’ll be reaching out and touching hope.  We’ll be making our mark on hope.  We’ll be identifying ourselves in hope (our finger prints and all). We’ll be receiving hope in different ways as we smile at new faces and have fun while the new thing is created. We want people to know who we are and how we relate to Jesus.  We believe that God might lead us toward those who are looking for us.

And now, because of the rain, we’re waiting in hope to do the whole thing…